Some 59 million of us Americans do it — we feed the birds, primarily from backyard feeders. The feeders, though, also can spread deadly diseases among birds.
In the past several weeks, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources has been fielding calls from worried homeowners across the state reporting sick and dead birds in yards. Similar concerns have been reported in other states.
DNR ornithologist Bob Sargent said bacterial infections picked up by the birds at feeders appear to be the main culprits. Flare-ups of disease-causing salmonella, he noted, have been reported in Georgia this winter, especially in dense urban areas.
An infected bird acts lethargic and can be approached easily, he added.
Most of the sickness has been among birds that were in Georgia this winter in unusually high numbers — mostly pine siskins and purple finches. Their unexpected abundance is called an “irruption,” which occurs when species that normally stay up north during the cold season fly south because of extra-harsh weather and food shortages in their northern range.
Those birds have been flocking to Georgia feeders in great numbers this winter along with our usual resident species.
“The added number of birds at feeders has, in turn, increased the risk and occurrence of disease,” Sargent said. The maladies, he said, often are transmitted orally or through fecal matter that accumulates below feeders or on them.
The best way to prevent the spread is by cleaning up the ground below bird feeders and washing feeders and birdbaths weekly with a 10% bleach solution.
If you see sick birds, Sargent suggests taking down feeders for a week or so to encourage the birds to disperse. You can also report sick or dead birds to DNR at 478-994-1438.
Sargent said the irruptive species are heading back north now to breeding areas, which should cause a decline in the number of sick birds here. “But folks should continue to clean the feeders throughout the year,” he said.
IN THE SKY: From David Dundee, Tellus Science Museum astronomer: Spring officially arrives at 5:37 a.m. Saturday — the Vernal Equinox. The moon will be first quarter on Sunday. Mars is in the southwest at dark and sets in the west a few hours later. Mercury, Jupiter and Saturn are in the east before sunrise.
Charles Seabrook can be reached at email@example.com.